Sunday, November 21, 2010


Another legendary artist turned 80 this year, and it's been an almost year-long celebration as the songs and shows of Stephen Sondheim have been celebrated in new revues and special concerts, all honoring the man who turned the American Musical Theater on its ear in the early 1970s and pointed it forward. One of the big celebrations was a two-night concert at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, but before I get to that, let me say that there are some Living Legends who do indeed answer their mail, and not only do they answer it, but they do it the old-fashioned way: by typing it!

I've been a Sondheim fan for most of my life, growing up listening first to his lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy, and then experiencing an incredible back-to-back double-whammy on the evening of April 13, 1971, when I saw his musical Company, and the next afternoon, April 14th, at the Winter Garden Theater when I was nearly blown out of Seat C-13 Orchestra by Follies (a ticket I bought while the show was still on it's pre-Broadway tour - one look at that cast and I couldn't resist). And while I admit to being more partial to his pre-1990 shows and less familiar with those produced since, my admiration for him has never wavered. And so, upon publication of his first book, Finishing the Hat, I wrote him a long-overdue letter to express something of what his work has meant to me. I think it's important to do that with artists whom we appreciate.

SONDHEIM! THE BIRTHDAY CONCERT is a remarkable viewing and listening experience, and it put me through the ringer, I can tell you.
I managed to maintain my composure until "Move On" when Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters got to the part where it becomes "We've always belonged together..." (this followed Patinkin slaying us with "Finishing the Hat") and then I just lost it. This number has always moved me, but never more so than seeing Patinkin and Peters perform it together again here, under these circumstances.

Then there was the "Beautiful Girls" segment – Audra McDonald, Patti LuPone, Marin Mazzie, Donna Murphy, Bernadette Peters all in red gowns, and Elaine Stritch in a red pants suit with matching hat, entering to the song that brought on the girls in Follies.. The segment consists of:

"The Ladies Who Lunch" - Patti LuPone (I wonder if there were any sour grapes about who got to sing what - "Ladies Who Lunch," of course, is owned by Stritch, yet she sat graciously by and let someone else have a swing at it, and then applauded LuPone with more enthusiasm than everyone else (and they were pretty enthusiastic).

"Losing My Mind" - I'm not usually a Marin Mazzie fan, and I'm very particular about how this song is song, as it's my #1 favorite Sondheim song, but she gets my approval here, and the original Jonathan Tunick orchestration played by the NY Philharmonic is brilliant.

"The Glamorous Life" - Audra McDonald (the movie version) - when doesn't something gorgeous come out when this woman opens her mouth? Earlier, she and Nathan Gunn performed a stunning "Too Many Mornings."

"Could I Leave You?" - Donna Murphy.

"Not a Day Goes By" - Bernadette Peters has always performed this to perfection, but her connection with Sondheim, and events in her personal life, gave this even deeper emotional resonance than usual.

"I'm Still Here" - Elaine Stritch. She got off to a slow start, but caught up - and how! More of a defiant bellow than actually sung, but it's incredible the amount of respect she gets from other performers, as well as the response she gets from an audience - she looks like the local bag lady when she first walks on stage, but later the other “girls” watch her with total concentration. (I was reminded of the Follies in Concert documentary, which was also filmed at Avery Fisher Hall – much of that consisted of rehearsals, and was Stritch in her sailor hat and rehearsal clothes, without makeup and dumpy-looking, but when she began "Broadway Baby" I seem to remember that all conversation and activity around her ceased almost simulaneously as everyone's attention was absolutely riveted on Stritch - and Follies in Concert had a pretty impressive cast as well. And when at the beginning the Birthday Concert cast makes their entrances as if to a party, Stritch hilariously steers George Hearn away from the cocktails as they exit the stage – from his delighted reaction it was almost certainly an ad-lib on Stritch’s part - she is now as famously sober as she was previously famously drunk..

Other treats: "Pretty Women" performed by two "Sweeney Todds," George Hearn and Michael Cerveris, and "A Little Priest" performed by both of them with LuPone. Almost all of these numbers were proof positive that most Sondheim songs are indeed "little plays" that give the performers material to act as well as to sing - John McMartin's now-poignant "The Road You Didn't Take" is another prime example (the 81-year-old McMartin is the only surviving member of Follies' stellar principal players), and then there’s Audra McDonald's face during the first part of "Too Many Mornings" - she conveys all the character's emotion while just listening to Nathan Gunn, even before she herself sings a note (they kiss twice during the song, an action that in another era would have brought the theater down around them – literally). I just read an on-line review which said that Gunn and McDonald had zero chemistry - I can only surmise that the reviewer must have been watching some other concert.

And at the end, after several dozens of performers from current Broadway shows filed into the hall to crowd the stage and the aisles as they serenaded Sondheim with "Sunday," everyone sang the only song of the evening that he didn't write at least part of: "Happy Birthday. Obviously done in emotionally but ultimately maintaining his composure, Sondheim acknowledged the tribute by quoting Alice Roosevelt: "'First you're young, then you're middle-aged, and then you're wonderful.' This was wonderful. Thank you all."

Putting it mildly - very mildly - that just about sums up SONDHEIM! THE BIRTHDAY CONCERT as well. The audience that attended was lucky indeed - those who watch this concert on DVD can consider themselves almost as lucky. Several on-line reviews of this DVD mentioned Sondheim's book Finishing the Hat, and one actually made me start to reach for the book, but then I remembered that 's temporarily out of my possession, having today gone through a USPS sorting facility in Jersey City, New Jersey, as it makes its way to the man himself - it's "the book" Sondheim mentions in his note. Lucky me!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veteran's Day

Veteran's Day is known as "Armistice Day" in England, celebrating the end of World War I, but it's kind of a catch-all day here in the U.S. as we honor the men who fought to preserve our way of life. My father was one of them - he served in World War II.

My father spoke very little of his wartime experiences – one story I did hear, either from him or perhaps repeated by my mother, was that he was drafted, but was rejected for being underweight! But when he enlisted sometime later (supposedly on a dare), he was accepted. Was this true? I don’t know, but I’d say probably not – his enlistment is dated as of April 15, 1942, a little over five months after Pearl Harbor and America's entry into the war, and in the space for “Selective Service Data – Registered” there is an ‘x’ in the box for “No.”

He alluded to service in England and Italy, but his discharge papers mention as ‘Battles and Campaigns’ only “Normandy Northern France Ardennes Rhineland” – however, his European service did indeed begin in England – he departed the U.S. on July 1st, 1942 and arrived in England on July 12 (many years later, when he went on a cruise, he commented that his only previous cruise ship experience had been “courtesy of Uncle Sam,’ obviously a reference to the trip to and from Europe on a government ship) – he departed (from England again? the papers don’t say) and arrived back in the U.S. on October 6, 1945. He was discharged on October 13, and married my mother a few weeks after returning home. As I’ve said, my father was one of those who didn’t speak of his wartime experiences, not to his children at least, and this was true of countless men, some of whom never opened up at all about this period in their lives, and others who didn’t until Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, finally gave them ‘permission’ to do so (and thus opened the floodgates for countless WW II memoirs).

Whatever my father saw during those years of service, whatever he did there, he kept to himself, though apparently his experiences manifested themselves in dreams – sometimes in his sleep he’d sigh and mumble indistinctly – “He’s dreaming about the war,” my mother would say. But although he kept a knife and an army pistol as souvenirs (we knew where they were kept, and looked at them in secret, but never took them out of the drawer, never held or touched them) his memories and his dreams were his alone. Would it have made any difference if he’d been able to? I don’t know. My father was a private man, not given to introspection or self-analysis – he did his duty (and in doing so perhaps saw things that people shouldn’t see), neither bragged nor complained about it, and came back home to go on with his life.